Reflecting All The Light We Cannot See

Light
Light
The visible reminder of Invisible Light.
T. S. Eliot

all_the_light_we_cannot_see_doerr_novel

What was intended to be a summer read turned out to be an early winter read – very appropriately because this is a book about light and darkness, perfect for Advent and the darkest time of the year. In All the Light We Cannot See we see the world through the hands of a blind woman, Marie-Laure. As a child she is given a model of her world which helps her to feel her way in spite of all the light she cannot see. In telling her story, Anthony Doerr, is putting a model into our hands to remind us how complex life is and to help us discover the light that can be hidden in the smallest detail.

Anthony Doerr has spun for us a hopeful story that is full of humanity. Besides the blind girl, there is an orphaned German boy who becomes a radio technician. The setting is the Second World War which so divided and devastated Europe. Their lives don’t cross till later but Doerr skillfully weaves their stories together in brief alternating chapters.

With the rise of populist politics as expressed in the Brexit referendum and elsewhere, it seems that we are again in a dark age (and the book is a startling reminder of the institutions that have grown up in post-war Europe which so far have preserved peace – it would be stupid and careless if this were to be unpicked). There is a lot of darkness as we don’t know where we are heading. There is a lot of light that we cannot see as we turn ourselves inwards.

There is so much light we cannot see – from the past and into the future. But in the hands of a blind girl the author has placed a model which can help us through to the light we cannot see. The model maker is her father – significantly a locksmith. I say significantly because of these lines by poet Malcolm Guite in response to one of the Advent antiphons:

Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key,
That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate,
Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard,
Particular, exact and intimate,
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward.
I cry out for the key I threw away
That turned and over turned with certain touch
And with the lovely lifting of a latch
Opened my darkness to the light of day.
O come again, come quickly, set me free
Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.

Julia McGuinness has also written about this book. She captures the ideas of light within limited spaces which is so much part of this story set in the extremes of human existence.

Part of my work is to support newly ordained clergy. One of the cheesy things I do is write to those who have been recently ordained, just before Christmas. I say something like:

Happy first Christmas to you as a “priest”. I hope you enjoy your first Christmas celebrations. It is a wonderful moment – embracing strangers/visitors. One of the ideas that came to me (when I was struggling to find yet another homily in a busy Christmas season) was a play with the word “manger”. Pronounced the French way it’s about eating. Pronounced the Christmas way it’s where Jesus is born. Do we prepare a manger with the hands we offer for the bread? Is this when Jesus is born? As we place the bread in the hands of others, are we laying Jesus in their manger?

When we take the bread into our hands, into the manger we prepare, we take all the light we cannot see. This is the body of Christ, the light of the world. This is the faith we have as Christians, a faith that in the darkest times there is all the light we cannot see. The light that shines in the darkness, makes a difference as to how we recognise one another, how we see one another, how we see our past, how we see our future – as not so dark as maybe we once thought. This too, like Marie-Laure’s model, is something so small that is placed into our hands, to help us discover the light that can be hidden in the smallest detail, in places we would never look into because of their depth of darkness.

Besides preparing a manger with our hands, we often put our hands together to pray (like a candle flame), and we often close our eyes (as if a reminder of the darkness). There are all sorts of reasons for these customs – but in our heart of hearts we know that there is all the light that shines in darkness. By praying we witness to the true light that gives light to everyone.

At the end of his magnificent novel, Doerr imagines:

People walk the paths of the gardens below, and the wind sings anthems in the hedges, and the big old cedars at the entrance to the maze creak. Marie-Laure imagines the electro-magnetic waves travelling into and out of Michael’s (game) machine, bending around them, just as Etienne used to describe, except now a thousand times more criss cross the air than when he lived – maybe a million times more. Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programmes, of emails, vast networks of fibre and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from transmitters with cellular transmitters in them, commercials … flashing into space and back to earth again, I’m gong to be late and maybe we should get reservations? and ten thousand I miss yours, fifty thousand I love yours, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields and tombs’ over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the charred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations.

And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the encore of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.

I am imagining it. I am imagining the map Doerr has drawn of some of the light we cannot see. 

I can’t wait to read this again.

Thomas’s Twin – a sermon for Easter 2A

Sermon notes for Easter 2A for St Alban’s, Broadheath. Again, it could be said better, and I hope it will be. I share it anyway. The Gospel reading is John 20:19-31

Who likes ants?

We are told to learn from the ants. Proverbs 6:6 – “Go to the ant, you sluggard: consider its ways and be wise.”

It’s true. We can learn a lot about community and industry from ants. We can also learn that if they get lost they die. When ants get lost, they follow a simple rule. The rule is to follow the ant in front. But they don’t know that the ant in front of them is only following the ant in front of him. They finish up going round and round in circles, blindly following the one in front until …. They die.

There is a famous example of this deathmill from the Guyana jungle. The ants were just going round in circles – it was a trail of ants which just kept marching in a column 400 yards long (the length of a running track). It took them 2 days to complete a circuit. On and on till they died from exhaustion.

Consider its ways, and be wise. What do we learn from the ant? We learn the importance of thinking for ourselves. We learn the importance of seeing for ourselves.

“Seeing is believing.” That’s what we say, isn’t it?

“We have seen the Lord” is what the disciples say in today’s gospel reading. “We believe”. “We have seen the Lord” is what the disciples say to Thomas, who wasn’t there to see and believe. He is the odd one out.

He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and missed seeing Jesus.

Seeing is believing is the theme of John’s gospel. Time and again John refers to the disciples “coming to see”. The frequency increases as we move to the end of John’s gospel.

  • Mary Magdalen came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed,
  • Peter and the beloved disciple ran to the tomb and saw the linen wrappings lying there. They went into the tomb, and saw and believed.
  • Mary Magdalen told the disciples that she had seen the Lord.
  • Mary Magdalen, Peter, the beloved disciples come to see the Lord.
  • And then, that same evening of the day of resurrection, the disciples “see the Lord” – apart from Thomas. Where was he? What was he doing?

Seeing is believing.

But if seeing is believing, what about those who are not there to see, like Thomas?

And what about those who can’t see? What about those who not even Specsavers can save?

This was a problem for a friend of mine who became blind. He was troubled about all that the Gospels say about “seeing” and “believing”, and about “light” (good) and “darkness” (bad). How could he believe when he couldn’t see? How could he be saved when he had been cast into outer darkness?

Do you see his problem?

He worked it out in the end, eventually realising that there are other ways of seeing. He called it “whole body seeing” and wrote the story of his blindness and his later whole body seeing in a book called Touching the Rock.

This is how he discovered his “whole body seeing” (WBS for short). He was staying at Iona. He had been told about the altar there by people who had described it to him. Then he saw it for himself. This is what he wrote:

 “After several nights, I discovered the main altar.

I had been told about this, and I easily recognised it from the description. It was a single block of marble.

Finding one corner, I ran my fingers along the edge, only to find that I could not reach the other.

I worked my way along the front and was amazed at its size.

The front was carved with hard, cold letters. They stood out baldly, but I could not be bothered reading.

The top was as smooth as silk, but how far back did it go?

I stretched my arms out over it but could not reach the back. This was incredible.

It must have a back somewhere. Pushing myself upon to it, my feet hanging out over the front, I could reach the back. I did this again and again, measuring it with my body, till at last I began to have some idea of its proportions. It was bigger than me and much older.

There were several places on the polished surface which were marked with a long, rather irregular indentations, not cracks, but imperfections of some kind.

Could it have been dropped? These marks felt like the result of impact. The contrast between the rough depressions and the huge polished areas was extra ordinary.

Here was the work of people, grinding this thing, smoothing it to an almost greasy, slightly dusty finish which went slippery when I licked it. Here were these abrasions, something more primitive, the naked heart of the rock.”

When I read that I just went WOW. He had seen things which would not have been noticed by the casual observer with her naked eye. With his whole body seeing he had found things there which I am sure he’d be telling others about over breakfast the next day. “Come and see” he’d have been telling everyone.

I mention this because I think there is something in today’s gospel about the importance of seeing things for ourselves. When we see things for ourselves we are not seeing through other people’s eyes. We are not conforming to their vision, and we are seeing things that nobody else sees.

This brings us to the beauty of Thomas who is the focus of our gospel reading.

Thomas is a disciple who captures our imagination, isn’t he? That’s shown in the number of Thomases there are. (How many here are called Thomas, or have a Thomas in their family?)

Two of our children have Thomas in their names, after their grandfather.

We often talk about “doubting Thomas” and then refer to him as typical of us, who are often “doubters” like him.

I’m not sure that this is helpful. Thomas is actually someone who sees and believes, but in a different way. Isn’t that a more helpful way to remember Thomas?

Thomas sees things differently. This is brought out in the gospel. He wants to see through his hands and fingers. He uses his body. He doesn’t just see with his eyes. He inspects. He uses his senses and his sense. He sees with feeling. He sees from the heart.

That is the way that Thomas comes to see.

He puts his hand into Jesus’ wounds. He reaches beyond first impressions. And then he sees. He feels the love in those scars and jumps to his joyful conclusion that he is seeing our Lord and our God. This is the staggering realisation which comes from seeing from the heart, which comes from seeing with feeling, which comes from his insistence that he should see things for himself.

Thomas is not the doubter. He is one who was willing to see.

 

Thomas is a twin. That is how he is introduced in the gospel. “Thomas the twin”. We don’t know whether Thomas had a twin brother or sister. IT’s more likely that “twin” was Thomas’s nickname because the meaning of the name Thomas is “twin”. But if Thomas had a twin, who might it be?

That  might have been a question that entertained John’s community. “If Thomas is the twin, who is his twin brother or sister?”

They could have played with that question and wondered “is that me?”

We can play with the same question. If Thomas is like us in his doubting, can we be like him in his seeing and believing? How much like him can we be? Can we be his twin brother or sister in the way that we are so much like him in wanting to see Jesus from the heart?

 

Jesus made many “resurrection” appearances – or should I say that Jesus makes many “resurrection” appearances. John admits that there are so many ways that Jesus showed himself and supposed that “if every one of them were written down the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Jesus wants us to see him for ourselves. He wants us to be witnesses.

Mary Magdalen, Peter, the disciple (disciples?) Jesus loves/loved, Thomas and ourselves come to see in their different ways. Together we are a body of believers who through our whole body seeing see things differently.

It is in such company that Jesus shows himself so that we might see life differently – with compassion that is able to feel for scars and wounds, and with the hope that love is stronger than death.

It is in such company that Jesus shows himself to us so that we might follow him in a way of life that is life giving, instead of blindly following others till, like the ants, we drop from exhaustion.

the quote is from Touching the Rock by John Hull
I found the picture of Still Doubting at Mattseyeshaveseen – with some interesting reflection.